The November sales of 19th-century academic paintings featured two large collections. Christie's offered a group of chiefly Orientalist pictures from the recently-formed collection of the late Arab oil magnate Akram Ojjeh, on Nov. 1, while Sotheby's followed on the evening of Nov. 2 with the 40-year old collection of the now-closed Haussner's Restaurant in Baltimore.
Christie's 19th-Century European Art
Many of the Orientalist pictures from the Ojjeh collection are more concerned with titillation than ethnographic accuracy, featuring scantily veiled "Oriental" women belly-dancing in the street, or languidly lolling in a seraglio. A typical example of the latter is a large, rather ungainly canvas by Paul-Alexandre-Alfred LeRoy of The Harem Dance which, despite being rather poorly painted, sold for $230,000 (est. $40,000-$60,000), to a very determined bidder in the back of the room, a contender on most of these lots.
The Ojjeh Bouguereau, La Vague, depicting a cold-creamed nude plopped unrealistically in front of crashing green ocean waves, had a cheap ($250,000-$350,000) estimate and sold for $650,000. Less racy were Rudolph Ernst's Lessons of the Koran (est. $70,000-$100,000), which sold for $120,000, and Ludwig Deutsch's The Chess Game, which sold for a remarkable $650,000 (est. $120,000-$180,000).
Ironically, Christie's two best Orientalist pictures were not from Ojjeh. Ludwig Deutsch's Nubian Palace Guard (est. $400,000-$600,000), depicting an imposing, handsome figure, had been tucked away in a West Coast collection since 1937. It's of unusually high quality for Deutsch (infinitely superior to The Chess Game), and there has been nothing quite like it in the salesroom for a long time. Everybody seemed to want it. In the spirit of the day, it sold to a determined phone bidder for $2.9 million (Richard Green offhandedly tossing in a bid along the way), a new record for both the artist and an Orientalist picture.
Immediately following was Jean-Léon Gérome's evocative, yet more subtle Corps de Garde d'Arnautes au Caire, showing several Albanian soldiers in the doorway of a brick building. Though it sold well at $260,000 (est. $220,000-$280,000), someone still got a quite bargain.
Sotheby's Haussner's Restaurant Collection
Sotheby's Haussner sale was a sentimental occasion for many attendees. Baltimorians fondly remembered the family-style restaurant for its iceberg lettuce smothered in thousand island dressing and the great strawberry pie. Dealers and collectors had been salivating for decades over the pictures that crammed the restaurant's walls. The savvy William Henry Haussner and Frances Wilke Haussner built their collection in the late 1940s through the early '60s, never paying over $3,000 for a picture.
During those glory days, when the market was flooded with good and bad paintings, the Haussners, for the most part, focused on well-painted, attractive, saleable subjects. They couldn't help but get a few important pictures along the way -- the excellent Alma-Tadema Entrance to a Roman Theatre, still in its original frame designed by the artist, sold for $580,000 (est. $300,000-$500,000). An unusually erotic Gérome, After the Bath, showing Harem cuties relaxing with a hookah, sold for $950,000 (est. $500,000-$700,000).
But it was the "kid pictures" that really got the crowd going .The most popular painting at Haussner's (they used to give out postcards of it to customers) was Arthur John Elsley's "I'se Biggest!" depicting an impish blonde girl standing tippy-toe beside her pet St. Bernard. Many hearts were broken as it sold for $610,000 (est. $150,000-$250,000). Following was another Elsley, this one showing a saucy tyke preparing to give her frisky puppies a squirt with a big, iron syringe, which made $375,000 (est. $80,000-$120,000).
More obvious, but no less successful, was Emile Munier's Best Friends, a sloe-eyed girl cuddling with a ginger cat and her kitten (tough subject, huh?), which was knocked down for $180,000 (est. $50,000-$70,000), and Briton Rivere's Dog Fancier, a smug older girl cuddling her pet pug puppy to the consternation of six older dogs at her feet, which sold reasonably by contrast at $90,000 (est. $60,000-$80,000).
Much more appealing was the rather wistful Venetian Flower Vendor by Eugéne de Blass, an unusually large, multi-figured composition of sweet-faced contadinas taking a break from their knitting. Much better and less obvious than usual, this canvas (the Haussner's first purchase in 1940) appealed to many, and sold to a phone bidder for a record $730,000 (est. $300,000-$400,000).
There were a few surprising buy-ins: Bouguereau's After the Bath, showing a psuedo-Grecian nude adjusting her slipper, was bought in at $230,000 (est. $400,000-$600,000). "Too fleshy! Her breasts were too pendulous and her pose was awkward," said one observer. John William Godward's A Roman Matron clad in red, lolling against a wall while fondling a peacock feather fan was bought in at $190,000 (est. $400,000-$600,000). Maybe she wasn't fleshy enough.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.